How will California solve the mental health crisis among its youth?
Perhaps by empowering young people to do the job themselves.
That, at least, is what’s happening in the state’s most innovative little town of Gonzales (population 8,600), in the Salinas Valley southeast of Salinas.
Beginning in early 2020, middle and high school students—members of the Gonzalez Youth Council, a parallel youth city council—took the lead in documenting the damage the pandemic is doing to their peers. But they didn’t stop there. Using their data, they created a new mental health strategy for the city and its schools, and provided the resources to enact it.
In the process, the Gonzalez teens modeled pandemic response themselves with such potential that a report describing it was recently published in a peer-reviewed academic journal of school psychologists.
Not surprisingly, the work was done in Gonzales, a working-class marvel of self-government in California’s lettuce lands. It’s a center for agriculture, food processing, and manufacturing, and the population is 90 percent Latino and very young in the Golden State today (with a third of the population under the age of 18).
Over the past generation, the city has prioritized public participation and empowerment of its youth in solving community problems—a strategy dubbed the “Gonzalez Method.” In the process, Gonzalez has produced eye-catching solutions to challenges from economic development to energy independence. Gonzalez has been particularly strong on health issues — winning national awards as she finds ingenious ways to get clinics and medical professionals to serve her people, vaccinating more than 99 percent of her eligible population for COVID.
Gonzalez Youth Council – A body chosen by students from nine to twelveThe tenth Graders were first created in 2015 – it’s been a huge player in this business because it has real power. The authority set local laws on underage drinking, and spearheaded police and community relations efforts. Its members sit for job interviews in local schools.
In the fall of 2019, youth council commissioners started talking about focusing on mental health next. When the pandemic hit, they accelerated their plans.
The board wanted to start with a comprehensive survey of Gonzalez youth. Unable to work in person, they needed to take the survey online — and to do so, they secured funding (from the Trinidad and Lope Gomez Family Fund, a local charity), and sought advice from Gonzales’ CoLab, a collaboration of city and area colleges. To develop solutions to community problems. At a CoLab networking event, the young delegates met Monterey Bay, California, child psychology professor Jennifer Lovell.
“They were really going to create their survey,” says Lovell, whose research team then joined the board. Within the partnership, university researchers helped young leaders design the questionnaire, collect anonymous responses, and analyze quantitative and qualitative data. The Youth Council had the final say on the contents of the survey and owned all the data.
The council conducted its first mental health survey in late spring 2020, focusing on the question, “How well are young people doing during the COVID-19 crisis?” The survey included 52 questions (multiple choice, rating-based, open-ended answer) on topics from loneliness and screen time to academic coping.
The results revealed significant psychological stress among the Gonzalez children. It wasn’t just that two-thirds said they were falling behind academically because they were struggling with school closures and unreliable online classes. About 60 percent of middle and high school students surveyed who have younger siblings report that they have to help brothers and sisters complete their homework online. More than half of the participants in the secondary study gave answers indicating that they suffered from anxiety, depression, or both. Gonzalez youth also reported that they needed more information about how to deal with these and other mental health issues.
The Youth Council quickly developed plans to provide that information and assistance. The council circulated its mental health checks via Instagram. The board has also shared hotline numbers, inspirational messages, coping tips, and self-care reminders with students, and has sought training for young people on how to respond when their peers are facing mental health issues.
Helping hand:The town of Salinas Valley is where kids come first
In fall 2020, the Youth Council met with school, city and county officials to advocate for more resources to help Gonzalez youth cope with the burdens of their mental health. As a result, these local governments decided to reduce the stigma around mental illness and make it easier for students to report mental health challenges.
The meetings also resulted in a new financial commitment. In January 2021, the city and school district agreed to share the cost of hiring an additional licensed clinical social worker to support student mental health.
People are paying attention to Gonzalez’s work—as an example of what scholars call youth-led participatory research. Three commissioners from the Youth Council worked with Lovell’s team to write a peer-reviewed study for the Quarterly Journal of the National Association of School Psychologists, School psychology review.
But the youth council did not finish this work, or satisfy Gonzales’ mental health. Earlier this year, young adults conducted a follow-up survey to test the impact of new mental health resources, asking students what else they needed.
The good news: The 2022 survey revealed a decrease in the high rates of mental stress, anxiety and depression reported in 2020. But students reported continued struggles with balancing the burdens of homework and family and managing their health, and said they wanted better access to mental health services.
said Youth Council Commissioner Shirin Flores Magadan, a student at Gonzalez High School I. “And we need to provide more information to parents – this is one of the keys to helping our teens.”
In Gonzales, there is also talk of new peer-to-peer projects—particularly around tutoring, pedestrian safety, and community gardens. The logic is pretty straightforward: Who better to help children than the children themselves?